Indian Philosophy – Gotama

Gautama Nyaya Sutra

Gautama, who lived sometime about 250 BCE, is considered the founder of the Nyaya school and the author of the Nyaya Sutra, a textbook and manual on logical debate.  The Nyaya Sutra was not the first Indian text concerned with logical argument and analysis, but it became one of the most popular and thus foundational for the Nyaya school.  It is believed that the Jains and Buddhists, who are more skeptical thinkers about logic but very involved in debate, later took much from the Nyaya Sutra and school.  Nyaya means “right”, “just”, “justified” or “justifiable”, the same way we use ‘logical’ to mean ‘right debate or speech’.  The school reached its height in 150 CE, but it traces itself back to Gautama and his teachings.

brick wellGautama is also called ‘Akshapada’, ‘Eyes in the Feet’, from a legend that he was so deeply absorbed in thought one day on a walk that he fell into a well, and Brahma gave him eyes in his feet to prevent this from happening again.  Notice that, like the Vaisheshika ‘particular’ school, Nyaya is concerned with putting particular things into categories and relationships.  Objects and substances can be called the ‘feet’ of things, and their families or causes (generalities) the head or mind of things.

Giant Buddha Indian TempleThe Buddha, who also lived sometime around 550 BCE is also called Gautama or Gotama.  Some scholars used to argue that Gautama may have been the Buddha himself, but in fact they were two different founders of two different schools who were both from the Gautama region in Northern India which is how they share the name.  Gautama, Buddha and Mahavira (the founder of Jainism), were also of the warrior caste, the second class in the Indian caste system beneath the first class Brahmins, the Vedic priests and scholars.

JackalThis shows that the period produced new thinkers with new ideas that were questioning the established Vedic tradition, and the schools of this period are known to have become very popular because they were open to people of all castes including the lowest.  A story from the period says that a scholar who gave up on the Vedas and turned entirely to logic turned into a Jackal.  This story was obviously told by Vedic scholars and priests who found the new systems a threat to the old established traditions.  Like science in Europe, however, the new ways were gradually added to the old ways, until the new system was an old standard alongside the Vedic traditions.

Earth_Eastern_HemisphereThe Nyaya Sutra is one of many debate manuals that was written for Indian philosophical or cosmological debates.  Questions asked included: “Is the self/soul/mind eternal or temporary?”, “Is the world and its laws eternal or temporary?”, “Is it better to renounce or indulge in luxuries?”, “Are there particular things which are sacred or is everything equally sacred?”, and, a question seen in Kanada’s text, “Is sound (and thus the oral tradition of the Vedas) eternal or temporary?”.  This last question is central to the Nyaya text and Gautama’s form of proof that we will study.  It is noticeable that many of these debates are concerned with distinguishing the eternal from the temporary.  In ancient world cosmology, the eternal was the sacred and the object of true knowledge.  If one could determine which things and laws are eternal, one would grasp the ways of the cosmos.

indian sageNotice that these debates (vadas) are also all of the form Is X Y or not Y?  This is the typical form of Nyaya debate or Nyaya Vada.  If one could justifiably claim that all X are Y, one could then argue for further truths based on the established truths.  Jains and Buddhists also took this form as fundamental.  For instance, the Vedic priests argued that the self/soul/mind was eternal, while the Jains and Buddhists argued that it is temporary.  In Greek thought, particularly with Plato and Aristotle, this arguing back and forth between opposite positions is called dialectic.  Later, in Buddhist debates after Nyaya hits its height, three areas of debate for a proposition were conducted in order:  “Is X always Y?”, “Is X everywhere Y?” and “Is X Y in everything?”.

In ancient India, a king, authority or rich patron would organize a debate and banquet, invite participants from various schools of thought to debate (often the teachers of competing rival schools, like a competition in a Kung Fu movie).  This put them in good standing with the public.  Women were not unheard of as debate participants, but not nearly as common as male debaters (one can unfortunately say this of American and British philosophical departments today).

d7ab7-442aaristotle27sparkDebate manuals like the Nyaya Sutra were designed to introduce students and scholars to typical forms of argument as well as methods of attack and defense.  They also listed fallacies, types of false arguments that sound solid but have flaws.  The Nyaya Sutra tells us that the best debater will not take cheap moves, ‘quibbles’ or ‘clinchers’, but one is free to make them at one’s own risk.  The text is surprisingly honest and insightful on this point.  By using deceptive reasoning, you could win the debate but you could also could lose if your opponent points out your errors or shortcuts.  This is still true of argument today even in the most casual setting, and a good reason that looking into old Logic texts like the Nyaya Sutra is still useful today.  Aristotle’s Organon, his ‘Tool’, are six books that cover different areas of debate and knowledge, similarly dealing with construction of argument and fallacies.  Aristotle also must straddle the sometimes contrary goals of arguing truth and winning the debate.

The Four Sources of Knowledge are Perception, Inference, Comparison, and Testimony.  All of these can potentially give valid knowledge, but there are problems with each.

Human EyePerception is seeing or experiencing something for oneself.  Perception can only be valid if it tells you something determinate that doesn’t vary or change.  Three examples of false perception given in the text are confusing smoke and dust, confusing a rope with a snake, and thinking that the hot earth is wet when in fact this is a mirage.

rain cloudsInference is knowledge of an object produced by perception.  This shows induction of perception passing into deduction of inference which is still held in Philosophy and Psychology today.  Some authors have claimed that Aristotle’s syllogisms are deductively valid but the Nyaya proof is not and based on induction.  Actually, Aristotle has many syllogisms he admits are not deductively valid on their own and he also believes that one can only argue based on what one perceives and one can be mistaken exactly like the Nyaya School and Gautama.  We can see induction and deduction working together in both Aristotle’s syllogisms and Gautama’s form of proof.  As can see in the text, there are five steps but as the Buddhists correctly perceived the first and second are identical to the fifth and the fourth.  To make it easier, I have boiled it down to two steps.  The first is a general rule backed by an example.  The second step is a reason which leads to a conclusion.  The text gives us two examples:

Metal Indian PotWherever there is smoke there is fire, as in a kitchen.  Because there is smoke on the hill, there is fire on the hill.

Whatever is produced is mortal, as a pot.  Because sound is produced, sound is mortal.

Both of these have the form All B are C (like the example), and because A is B, A is C.  This is similar if not identical to the first perfect form of Aristotle’s syllogism, with his famous central example being, “All men are mortal, so since Socrates is a man, Socrates is (or rather, was) mortal“.

Indian CourtFallacies are mistakes commonly made in arguments.  Types of fallacies identified in the Nyaya Sutra include changing the thesis, contradicting the thesis, meaningless utterances, incoherent speech (‘colorless sleep furiously green’ is a famous example by Noam Chomsky), repetition, silence, ignorance (failing to understand typically), evasion (‘I am called by nature’, ‘I have another appointment’), sharing the fault (problem with both sides), overlooking fallacies, pointing out false fallacies.

Quibbling is objecting to an argument as a fallacy when it is not actually a fallacy.  If a fallacy is an error, quibbling is making an error about something being an error.  Quibbling can lose a debate just as surely as giving a fallacious argument.  The text gives three types: Term (ex: Someone claims to have a new (“nava”) blanket, but this is confused with the claim of nine (also “nava”) blankets), Genus (ex: Someone claims Brahmins are educated but the opponent objects that some Brahmins are two years old), and Metaphor (ex: Someone claims poetically, “The scaffolds cry out”, and the opponent objects, “Impossible, they are inanimate objects”).

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